The glue that has kept Thailand’s rural dwellers firmly cemented to the camp of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party is an extensive social uplift program that has been crucial over the past month as deadly demonstrations swept through Bangkok again.
Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party vice premier leading the protests, saw in the crowds the chance to widen the protest to attempt to drive the Thaksin family out of power and out of Thailand if possible.
But with Yingluck now having dissolved parliament for an election in 45 days, presumably Suthep and his janissaries will learn again that they do not have the votes to swing the country away from the formidable Thaskin election machine.
That said, what is happening in Thailand is not about Thaksin or not even about conflicts among the elite. It is more about socioeconomic change that got underway well before Thaksin came to office.
The old establishment, supported by the capital’s middle class, feel threatened by the provincial masses that Thaksin’s first administration in 2002 began to empower and enrich. Health care is now universal as is a social pension scheme.
Thailand has now become the world’s biggest microlender through 21,624 qualified community funds with 12 million members.
There is still a vast distance to go before the Northeast can catch up with the urban areas, however. The World Bank estimates that 72 percent of Thailand’s general public expenditures are spent in Bangkok, home to 27 percent of the country’s population, and produces 26 percent of GDP. By contrast, even after the extensive social programs put in place by the successive Thaksin administrations, the northeast, or Isaan asit is called, holds 34 percent of the population and receives 6 percent of the expenditures.
For generations, northeastern rural communities have sent their sons to Bangkok to work in construction or to drive the three-wheel tuk-tuk taxis, and their daughters to either clean houses or join the sex trade.
But now Thaksinomics, as it is called, has paid off both politically and economically. The latest Thailand Economic Monitor published by the World Bank shows that maternal mortality and under-five mortality rates have been greatly reduced and more than 95 percent of the population now have access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
The rise of the Thaksins’ serial governments has changed the dynamics of repartition of regional voting powers. Their focus on rural areas has allowed the northern part of Thailand – home to a third of the country’s voters – to assert itself at the polling booth. Thaksin mobilized the people of these remote parts, many of whom had never before been included in politics.
Consequently Northeastern Thailand, once considered a backwater, while still poorer than Bangkok, now joins the rest of the country in outpacing the capital in economic growthA study by Guido Vanhaleweyk, published on the ThaiWebsites.com, shows Bangkok to be the slowest in terms of GDP growth in Thailand. From relying almost exclusively on subsistence farming, the Northeast now has industries, shopping malls and universities.
In the northern capital of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city -- which is not considered to be a part of Isaan, as it is known, the signs of growing prosperity are everywhere. Construction is booming. Massive billboards on every major junction advertise fancy new houses and condos at prices that wouldn’t be out of place in richer, Western countries.
A walk among the lanes off trendy Nimmanhemin Road reveals a city that is a far cry from the temples and quaint dwellings of picture-postcard Chiang Mai. There is no shortage of wealth in this modern and vibrant quarter, where upmarket twenty-somethings in the newest cars and latest fashions sip lattes and dine at pricey restaurants. For now at least, Chiang Mai is a city on the up.
So long as the Thaksins promise more such changes, support to their party will stay strong.
These dramatic social changes are built on programs that have the urban classes in Bangkok grinding their teeth. For instance, the Pheu Thai government, almost as soon as it was installed, created the notorious rice-pledging program in October 2011 that applied to all domestically produced rice for sale. According to the World Bank’s report, the pledged price is set at about 50 percent above world prices.
Thai farmers have sold millions of tonnes of rice to the government that is mostly rotting in warehouses since the government has been unable to sell it on the world market, costing the country its longstanding position as the world’s biggest rice exporter – and billions of US dollars.
Reportedly the government now has 14 million tonnes of rice it has been unable to sell. In its December 2012 report, the World Bank estimated that the cost of the scheme to the national treasury was US$12.5 billion, 3.4 percent of GDP. The debt has since roughly doubled. But while the rice pledging scheme has enraged Bangkok’s elites, it has enraptured the 88 percent of the 5.4 million poor who live in rural regions and made them unshakable Thaksin voters.
The scheme has also given rise to considerable corruption. There are widespread reports of rice traders driving to Cambodia and Myanmar to buy cheap rice to sell it to the Thai government at the world price.
In addition, the Pheu Thai regime ordered a 40 percent raise in the minimum wage, vastly higher than the annual minimum wage hikes that have averaged 2.5 percent per annum. Meanwhile, the urbane middle classes in Bangkok, beholden to the King and his cohort for their fortunes, find themselves clinging on to the status quo and the traditions it represents, such as the monarchy.
With this in mind, researchers at Ethnographic Edge have run an algorithm that looks at data from media coverage of past crises in Thailand in order to forecast how things may unfold in this one. The results suggested that political tensions are likely to increase in the short term.
The researchers then asked informants from Thailand to comment the results, and found that, in fact, more rounds of conflict may soon be in the cards.
Following the King’s birthday, opposition from the Democrat Party didn’t lose time in bringing their ambitions back to the streets. Media reported that up to 150,000 people rallied in Bangkok in protest against Thaksin. The democrats, who held 153 of the 500 seats in the lower house, announced that they would resign, obliging the leader to succumb to pressures and dissolve the parliament.
This can also be seen as a smart move from her part, with the parliament dissolved there is only so much the protesters can now ask for. Still, according to our local sources, these measures won’t be enough to calm the streets of Bangkok. Political unrest will reflect on more deeply rooted socioeconomic issues, Thailand’s long-term stability could be at risk.
(The authors are research director and associate respectively of http://www.ethnographicedge.com/)